Mounir Baatour’s office is cool, the steady thrum of the air conditioner offering a welcome break from the blistering summer heat that has descended upon Tunis. Past noon, little moves outside. The streets are empty and even the city’s ubiquitous cat population has slinked off to the shadows.
Despite the temperature, Baatour, the first openly gay man to run for president in a Muslim country, remains focused upon the task ahead.
The road leading to the November poll is unlikely to offer a smooth ride. Homosexuality itself isn’t illegal in Tunisia. However, practising it is. This distinction has allowed Baatour, a lawyer, to register the pressure group Shams. Along with others, the group campaigns for a repeal of the colonial French law proscribing sodomy.
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Likewise, legal restrictions criminalising ”outrages against public decency” are often used to persecute the country’s LGBT+ population – these remain firmly with the sights of Baatour and other rights campaigners.
On top of this, the police force appears eager to exploit existing edicts allowing, for instance, enforced anal examinations to be used as evidence of sexuality. This is buttressed by a judiciary and political establishment long practised in the art of looking the other way.
In February, a young man from the coastal city of Sfax received an eight month sentence for engaging in homosexual acts after reporting being raped by two other men. Other stories of official abuse are legion.
“I am openly gay,” Baatour says. “I came out 20 years ago. I was jailed for three months for sodomy in 2013. There’s no shame for me. There’s no shame for any of us.”
Baatour, his association and his relatively fringe Liberal party are children of Tunisia’s revolution. In the years immediately following 2011, a number of gay rights groups emerged, led by Baatour’s own Shams, calling for a repeal of anti-homosexual laws.
However, even here, Shams’ tactics have given rise to division, with a coalition for LGBT+ rights issuing a statement last year distancing themselves from Shams and its president. Baatour attributes this schism to his openness to potentially normalising relations with Israel, a suggestion considered anathema to many on Tunisia’s left.
Perhaps ironically, the same period during which many of these groups arose also witnessed an explosion in Islamism across Tunisia, with the moderate Islamist Ennahda party vying with the radical Ansar al-Sharia for the political souls of Tunisia’s religious majority.
Ansar al-Sharia was outlawed in 2013, and support for Ennahda appears to have ebbed since the groundswell of popular support that saw them achieve a plurality vote in the country’s first free elections in 2011.
But across many sections of Tunisian society, values typically bend towards the traditional. In August, conservative demonstrators of both genders took to the street to protest a presidentially mandated report urging greater individual freedoms and equality across the genders.
As far as homosexuality is concerned, those conservative sentiments cut deeper. A June 2019 survey by the polling institute Arab Barometer reported that just 7 per cent of Tunisians condoned homosexuality. It’s a sentiment reflected within the rhetoric of some of Baatour’s populist rivals for the presidency. Law professor Kais Saied is a close second in the polls – he has suggested that encouraging the spread of homosexuality within the country is a foreign plot.
“I think we need to have a debate about homosexuality in Tunisia,” says Baatour, who identifies as Muslim but doesn’t practise.
“I’m not talking about promoting homosexuality, just about decriminalising it. Gay people don’t do anyone any harm. They should be free to do what they want with their bodies. If, as Kais Saied has said, homosexuality is a sickness, then – even if I accept that – I have to ask, why are you putting sick people in jail?
“When you put gay people in jail for three years, what, do they come out straight? No. So they must return to jail for a further three years and then for the rest of their lives.”
Though what Baatour is proposing might seem radical, it is not without precedent. In arguing his case, Baatour points to the country’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba, who in 1956 introduced landmark laws outlawing polygamy and introducing a code of women’s rights that stands to this day.
“All of that at the time was controversial, a lot of people said it was against Islam. However, Bourguiba had the political will to impose it. In 1956, Tunisia was more conservative than it is now, but people came to accept it and still do.”
However, while accepting that much of the attention on him focuses upon his stance on LGBT+ rights, Baatour is keen to stress that his candidacy is about more.
He wants to address many of Tunisia’s underlying ills, from the state enterprises that continue to haemorrhage money, to the vast scale of the country’s informal economy, to the environment, which remains a priority.
But above all, he says, is his commitment to promoting civil liberties and the rights of the individual.
Whether or not he is successful remains to be seen. However, for Baatour, the fight alone is worthwhile. If anything, he says, his campaign forces the other candidates to address the lack of progress on civil liberties and individual rights within Tunisia.
Baatour leans forward, “I will place this at the very heart of my campaign.”